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AT&T resurrects online iPhone sales, at-home activation

Customers can order online, finish activation process by phone or at att.com

December 11, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - AT&T Inc. started selling iPhones online again late yesterday, and will allow customers to complete the activation process at home, eliminating a months-long requirement to buy and activate only at its retail stores, the company confirmed today.

Online sales of Apple Inc.'s iPhone 3G began Wednesday night, said AT&T spokesman Wes Warnock in an e-mail Thursday. He also explained the new activation procedures the company rolled out at the same time.

"The device ships activated, but a customer must accept terms and conditions over the phone with customer care or online at att.com, which is the same process for other phones purchased online," said Warnock. "After [that] he or she will simply sync the device with iTunes to use it."

Since Apple launched the iPhone 3G in July -- and at the same time dumped activation via its own iTunes online music store -- AT&T has sold iPhones only at its physical stores and did all the phone activations there. Even during the weeks after the 3G launch, when supplies were tight and orders backed up, AT&T notified customers that their phone had arrived, but still made them return to a store to pick it up and activate it.

That process resulted in a series of serious snafus, when in-store activation ground to a halt as the back-end servers collapsed. On July 11, in fact, some buyers were sent home with instructions on how to activate their newly purchased iPhones from home.

The first-generation iPhone, which debuted in June 2007, could be purchased online and activated through iTunes; Apple and AT&T changed that for the new iPhone 3G to stop purchases of the device without a corresponding contract with AT&T. In effect, it was a way to stop users, many of whom lived outside the U.S., from buying an iPhone, then "unlocking" it to use on another carrier's network.

Apple's e-store today showed no similar iPhone online offer today, but instead continued to point buyers to the company's own retail stores or to AT&T's.

Apple did not immediately reply to questions about the change and whether its online store would follow suit.

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